Into South Africa: Cape to the Karoo

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Cape Town- Table View- Wellington- Worchester- Robertson- Montagu- Anysberg Reserve- Vleiland- Gamkaskloof- Prince Albert

Squinting into the sun on the edge of a continent I hadn’t expected to visit a month ago, we depart Cape Town and the coast.  The first few days– like the first days of our first bike tour back in 2008– are spent spinning circles with our legs, waiting for this place to say something.  There is no ceremony, only a hurried effort to pass city limits and not stop at the shops on the way, for fear that we’ve forgotten something.  It will all make sense in time.  

Some hours and miles down the road, we’ve got a goal for the day and a feel for the place.  The maps make sense, the heat of the sun is real, and the anxiety of the days and months ahead turns to excitement and understanding.  

Our arrival in Cape Town is not the result of long-term planning and anticipation.  On the occasion that Lael makes major decisions, the cart often finds its way in front of the horse.  But for anyone that has jumped into icy waters or nervously asked for a date– or left on a bicycle trip– that’s often the only way.

Immediately out of Cape Town we connect to a series of sandy farm roads and local tar.  First, we must learn to ride on the left side of the road, refer to trucks as bokkies, and paved roads as tar roads.  The cape region is folded with mountains and fertile valleys in between.  Fields of finely sorted fruits and fields of black laborers waving gleefully send us into a tailspin of speculation about the politics and economy of South Africa, and all of Africa, topics which I’ve hardly ever considered.  I don’t know anything about Africa.  We agree that the wine really is excellent.  The sun is hot.

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Wine grapes are abundant through the first few days of riding.  Quality wines range in price from $2-$5.  A few cubes of ice in a glass of wine are not uncommon on a hot day.  

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We focus our efforts at discovering some of the Freedom Trail, the basis for the annual Freedom Challenge, an adventure mountain bike race across South Africa that is growing in popularity.  The format of the race is similar to something like the Divide where the clock runs non-stop, although food and lodging are provided at points along the way, usually at farmhouses or villages.  Notoriously, there are several challenging portages and frequent tall game fences or shorter livestock fencing to surmount.  Add to that the challenge of traveling across the country in June, which is winter in this country, and the requirement to travel solely with paper maps and a compass, no GPS.  

Most riders engage the Freedom Trail during the annual race, but the route can be ridden in any season, although summers may be extremely hot and winter can be cold at elevation.  However, the route is not open to tour at any time without prior arrangement.  It is not a wholly public route– making essential connections across private farms and game preserves– although it does rely heavily on public roads for most of its distance.  Contact the Freedom Challenge organization several weeks in advance to arrange a ride on the Freedom Trail.  An itinerary will be provided based upon your intended per diem mileage.  A fee is required to cover permitting, as well as food and lodging in remote areas.  It is possible to tour the route with nearly complete food and lodging arrangements, enabling ultralight travel.  Not all of these details are clear on the website.  

The Freedom Trail begins about a day’s ride out of Cape Town near Wellington with a short dirt road section followed by the famous Stettynskloof portage.  We opt to cross the mountains through historic Bain’s Kloof Pass, a gorgeous tar road.   

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As sunset, with winds howling along the face of the mountain, we shoot up a dirt track within the nature preserve.  Thus far much of the country is fenced, singed, and guarded.  Looking for flat ground, I spot a small building away from the road.  I approach slowly.  The structure is recently abandoned, apparently of some former official pedigree.  It makes fantastic cover for the night.

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Across the mountains we enter the Breede River Valley and enjoy the towns of Worcester, Robertson, and Ashton, before passing Kogmankloof poort (Cogman’s Kloof).  The Breede Valley is an especially productive wine region.

A quick lesson is Afrikaans assists map reading skills greatly.  A kloof is a valley; a vlei is a swamp; a poort is a low pass through the mountains, often a water gap; veld refers to a field, usually the wide open grasslands or brush of the karoo.  Oh, and the karoo is the great stretch of land away from the sea known for small towns, a semi-arid climate, and big sheep farms.  Karoo kitsch culture, much like the culture exploited in parts of the American midwest, seems to be in full swing.

Worcester provides the opportunity to ship some things home and finalize GPS tracks and maps.  Francois at Manic Cycles provides us a with a GPS track of a pleasant gravel route through the Breede Valley toward Ashton and Montagu, where we plan to connect with a section of the Freedom Trail. 

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Abandoned tar, thanks to Francois.  He was recently contracted to design a route for the upcoming Cape Epic mountain bike race.

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Kogmanskloof poort, between Ashton and Montagu.`

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Montagu is a pleasant town, a few days from the pace and influence of Cape Town.  The region is home to a productive industry of dried fruits and nuts.  Cape Dutch architecture melds local materials with styles imported from Holland.  Fresh white paint is the color of choice to reflect the intense sun at thirty something degrees south.

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Further afield, the land opens up in a familiar way.  Many roads inland of here are gravel, except for the main connections between towns.

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Ouberg Pass invites us with a climb immediately out of Montagu.  Keith, whom we met in town, meets us at the top of the pass to say hello.  He runs a local guide operation called Langeberg MTB.  You can call him Mr. MTB.  Mountain biking is growing in popularity in the country.

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Open roads for miles.  We camp near the road in a small gravel pit, and awake at sunrise.  It is nice to restart the pattern of rising early and riding longer days.

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The route passes high quality gravel roads, connecting to less traveled farm roads, and onto a mellow 4×4 track into the Anysberg Reserve.  

The nature reserve contains notably more wild game than elsewhere.  After recent rains, the rivers and streams attract animals of all kinds.  Most stream beds are dry most of the year.

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Cats or dogs?  A lynx, perhaps.

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A scenic doubletrack leads through the preserve, antelope springing away from the stream as we pass, including springbok, kudu, eland, and gemsbok.

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Highly folded layers give the Cape Fold Mountains their name.

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We take shade for an hour or two to enjoy lunch and fill our bottles at the ranger’s station.  We’re carrying 4 and 5 liters or water each, with two cages taped to each side of the fork.  Four cages times 800ml each is just over three liters on the fork.  Lael has a bottle mounted to her stem top cap, a simple and unique mount available from King Cage out of Durango, CO.  I’ve got two more liters under the downtube in a Klean Kanteen cradled by a Salsa Anything Cage.  

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Signs and fences are the rule in South Africa.  It is claimed that some gates are illegally placed across roadways on large tracts of land to deter livestock theft and other crimes, and to contain animals.  It is impossible to know which signs indicate private property with the legal right to pass, and which rightfully and legally exclude the right to pass on a private road through private property.  

Famously, mountain bikers in South Africa are pictured tossing their bikes over gates and game fences up to 3m high.  I’m not advocating trespassing on private property, but you will encounter fences if traveling anywhere off the main gravel roads.    

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Tubeless tires are essential for off-pavment travel.  This is the most common tree in the semi-arid regions of the Western Cape.

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Abandoned.

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Unlocked.

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Water sources come in the form of stock tanks, farmhouses, and mountain streams.  

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Gate jumping techniques improve with time.  Game fences– about 3m high– are always a challenge.

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South Africa has some of the best wide open dirt roads that I’ve seen.  They may be less densely woven than in parts of the US, where USFS and BLM offshoots often lead in every direction, but the roads are wide and nicely graded.  The riding is perfect for day long conversations side-by-side.  I call these Fargo roads, in reference to the dirt road hungry Salsa Fargo.

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Camping along the gravel roads is possible once out of town, although most people in the country will warn that it is unsafe, something you may hear in any country.  We find a quiet spot for the night below a quiet road partly concealed by a shrub.  There are fences everythwhere along the road, and I’ve been told by farmers that it shouldn’t be problem to hop a fence to camp in most places.  However, individual farmers may think otherwise.  Best to ask at a farmhouse if possible, a common practice around here.  You’re likely to get more than a patch of dirt for the night.

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It is quite possible to self-design a dirt route across the country once away from the reaches of the city. 

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Vleiland is just a little dot on the map, but surpassed us with a small community center with alibrary, and an aging store nearby.  The store stocks bread, cold Coca-Cola and Stoney ginger beer, along with a few other dusty items.  Lael looks with wide eyes and remarks that we could easily resupply in this place, despite mostly bare shelves.  Amazing what changes after a few years on the road.

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This section of the Freedom Trail from the Anysberg Reserve to Gamkaskloof and Prince Albert follows the scenic backside of the folded Swartberg Mountains.  

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Following the Freedom Trail further, past Seweweekspoort Pass, we continue on towards a famous donkey trail down into Die Hel, or The Hell.  Dutch settlers reportedly entered the idyllic valley and rarely left.  The trail is named De Leer, or The Ladder.  

The route passes into the Bosch Luys Kloof, a private nature reserve bisected by a public road.  Then, it connects to a private 4×4 track called “To Hell and Back”.  We dial the the number listed on the sign to ask permission to travel this track, which connects to De Leer.

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In about 11km, the track ends at a steep mountainside overlooking the Gamkaskloof.  The ladder into the hell begins here, but not before a quick snack .

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This connection, among others along the Freedom Trail, requires prior arrangement to pass.  I had contacted the Freedom Challenge organization several weeks prior while in Cape Town but did not receive a response, the result of a communication mishap I have come to learn.  

There have been ongoing issues with some of the landowners at the base of De Leer, culminating in a situation where event organizers cleared a mess of razor wire at the base of the trail in 2013, which had been illegally installed by landowners.  They re-opened the route just in time to enable the leaders to pass during the Freedom Challenge.  Read all about it and the resulting citizen’s arrest on the South African bike forums page, The Hub.

The ride through the Gamkaskloof is followed by a steep climb up Eland’s Pass to eventually meet the famous Swartberg Pass from the west.

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On our third day in insistently intense sun, we take every chance to submerge in cool mountain water.

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Protea is the national flower of South Africa and also the name for the national cricket team.  This is Protea eximia.

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Swartberg Pass.

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While descending the pass, a stream of sealant sprays from my rear tire.  It eventually seals, thanks to a gob of latex and dirt which fuses to the outside.  I later learn that an internal lamination is compromised, as  knobs are also tearing away from the outside of the tire.  

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Near the base of the pass, en route to Prince Albert.  A cold stream crosses the road.

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After three days in the sun, we immediately seek shade at the supermarket in Prince Albert.  A large glass bottle of Stoney ginger beer cuts the thirst.  A two rand deposit is required for the bottle, to ensure it is returned for future use.   

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In town, I check the weather, maps, and e-mail.  A glance at Warmshowers.org indicates a host in town.  I call.

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Johann is a veteran volunteer and friend of the Freedom Challenge.  He imparts knowledge of routes in the karoo and about South Africa in general.  He invites us into his home, a unique straw-bale constuction with an open floor plan.  

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There won’t be any opportunities to purchase a tire between here and Johannesburg, so we head for Oudtshoorn the next day, a century ride which crosses twice over Swartberg Pass.

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A 29×2.2″ Vittoria Saguaro tire with a tough TNT casing fits the bill.  I’ll miss the volume of the Hans Dampf, but this is a great replacement for now.  There were quite a few 2.2″ tubeless tires to choose from.  Repeatedly, the salesman tried to sell me 2.1″ Maxxis Crossmarks, one of the most popular tires in this country.  The same happened at the other shop in town, even though I introduced myself by stating that I was looking for the largest volume tire available.  “Really, the Crossmark is quite nice”, he insists.

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Back home to Prince Albert, four thousand feet up and over.  Lael loves shopping, bit only when it involves such a ride.  We spend a few more days in the vicinity of Prince Albert.  Every day. every morning, she rides to the top of the pass while I am still sleeping.

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Johann prepares a braai of lamb chops.  Do not miss the opportunity to eat lamb or sheep in this country.  It is exceptional.

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Homemade olives.

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Johann also shares with us a new dirt route across the country called the Spine of the Dragon, designed by friends David Bristow and Steve Thomas  The route is detailed in this guide entitled Riding the Dragon’s Spine, including a 58-day itinerary from Cape Point to the border of Zimbabwe, via Lesotho.  The route relies exclusively upon public thoroughfares.  The language of the guide and the associated websites is inspiring and inclusive.  GPS tracks of the entire route are available for free download from the Dragon Trax website.  In exchange, a donation to a charity of your choice is recommended.  This is an exciting find.  

Thanks for everything Johann!

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We’ll be using the Spine of the Dragon Route as a backbone for our travels in the coming weeks.  Off into the karoo toward Lesotho.  

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32 thoughts on “Into South Africa: Cape to the Karoo

  1. Dang! Maybe it’s because I just returned from K Street NW in Washington, D.C., but your photos make it seem like you are really out there away from everything. Incredible. Also, I love this last shot of Lael and the one further up of the Protea. Beautiful.

    • It is big country, not unlike the American west. The section from Montagu to Prince Albert required a full three days of food, and a daily water fill. The store in Vleiland was a surprise, and really did have a slim selection (seriously, almost nothing).

  2. Looks amazing Nick! You have me convinced. Capetown may likely be the starting point for my second leg. I love how you shift between landscape shots and pics of local cultural experiences. Ride well out there!

    • Swartberg is like descending into Sedona via Mund’s Wagon Trail, for certain. Even the towns have an air similar to the old dying towns in America. Much has to do with the era in which they were built, I suppose.

  3. Hi there, By now you’re many miles away. Great write-up and images, you captured the essence of it very well. I guess I should have taught you some more Afrikaans while I had the chance 😉 Safe travels and keep in touch.

    • Thanks Johann, we’re actually in Wartrail, planning to ride into Lesotho tomorrow. Each day the scenery and topography have changed, evolving from the broad, dry expanses between Prince Albert and Willowmore to the folded green ridges of the Drakensburg. Favorable tailwinds have made the riding quite exciting. We’re also quite fond of sheep farmers by now, a lovely and generous bunch. Thanks again for everything.

  4. Fantastic photos and tales from the road.

    SA is somewhere I would dearly like to go back to and ride.

    Dragons Spine. Hmm.

    Mike

  5. Really nice, but so many carrots for lunch. You need to get more donuts into you diet. Also, in all your travels have you ever had to fix or replace and disc brake parts?

    Thansk

    • Those are hot dogs, called Viennas in South Africa, which in much of Eastern Europe are called Slovenska or Slovakian sausages. In Slovakia they are called “parky” Hot dog is a strange word.

      Just replaced pads, and fiddles with cables and barrels. Never damaged a disc beyond repair. Lael has broken several levers, but nothing that rendered the brakes inoperable.

  6. Damn, that blog is so inspiring … I love your writings, your way of seeing and living things, easily, and your pictures … I doubt you’ll ever come close to Paris, France, when I see what kind of environment is attracting you, but, if ever you come close, please feel free to drop a mail and come for one or more nights at home. My wife and I will be more than pleased to spend even just a few hours chatting around a glass of wine and a good diner with you two. I wish you all the best for these new adventures in S-A. Franck.

    • Lived in St.Malo for some time while Lael was working there, rode to Mt. Blanc and back via Normandy, Orleans, Macon, etc. Eventually rode from St. Malo to Paris to fly home.

      Also rode through Moselle, Vosges, Alsace last summer on GR5 and the Traversee du Massif Vosgien. We love France and will be back for sure. By the way, the GR12 links to Brussels and Amsterdam from Paris and should be mostly rideable, a bit of a pedestrian bikepacking ramble I should think. Lots of potential in France.

      Check out some of the riding in the Vosges: https://gypsybytrade.wordpress.com/?s=tmv&submit=Search

  7. WOW! I was looking for the like button under each and every photograph. Great to see you rolling and back in summer. We’re in Istanbul now after hitchhiking Turkey which has become cold and sun sets at 5 😦 Keep it up!

  8. I love reading this blog, a real inspiration and motivation, thank you. Cant wait to go on my own real adventure one day… fingers crossed.

    Stay safe!
    Greg

  9. This was really a fantastic post! The trail looks amazing and a friend and I are planning to embark on it in 1 month or so. I was hoping you might be able to provide a little info on contacts and costs along the way? I’m having a hard time finding any list of accommodation sites along the trail. Is it possible to pitch a tent most nights? We’re open to anything, but don’t really know where to start planning. My friend and I are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Mozambique and don’t have a great deal of cash to spend on the trip. But we DO know how to live cheaply! I would greatly appreciate just a little insight into how you went about planning the ride. Already emailed the Freedom Challenge guys, so hopefully they get back to me. Thanks so much! You are an inspiration to us intrepid travelers. Pura Vida!

    • Sean. The Freedom Challenge isn’t really a touring route. It is a once a year race route that requires prior arrangement and fees. It appears to be a nice route, and the opportunity to stay with some remote local hosts is part of the experience. However, as you would rely on access to private land and private accommodation, it requires planning and money.

      For a more touring-friendly route across South Africa, exclusively on public access routes, extending all the way from Cape Point to the border of Zimbabwe, check out the Dragon’s Spine route. Get the book by David Bristow and Steve Thomas. Download the GPS tracks for free. You will meet many incredibly and hospitable people along the way, and the riding is superb.

      Check out my complete route profile on Bikepacking.com: http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/bikepacking-south-africa-the-dragons-spine/

  10. I’ve heard from a few people that wildcamping is a nono in South Africa but you seem to say it’s fine, at least along this mostly rural route? I wildcamped all over Mexico including Baja but mostly on the mainland and people said I was crazy but I never had a problem nor felt unsafe. I’m guessing it will be more or less the same story in SA?

    • I think it is fine. There is some crime in South Africa, but there are many wonderful, honest people there too. I would say be smart and take the chance, we didn’t have any issues and never really felt unsafe.

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